Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he'd never before imagined, Dylan O'Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
The expired day lay buried in the earth, in the asphalt. Unseen but felt, its ghost haunted the Arizona night: a hot spirit rising lazily from every inch of ground that Dylan crossed.
Here at the end of town that served travelers from the nearby interstate, formidable batteries of colorful electric signs warred for customers. In spite of this bright battle, however, an impressive sea of stars gleamed from horizon to horizon, for the air was clear and dry. A westbound moon, as round as a ship's wheel, plied the starry ocean.
The vastness above appeared clean and full of promise, but the world at ground level looked dusty, weary. Rather than being combed by a single wind, the night was plaited with many breezes, each with an individual quality of whispery speech and a unique scent. Redolent of desert grit, of cactus pollen, of diesel fumes, of hot blacktop, the air curdled as Dylan drew near to the restaurant, thickened with the aroma of long-used deep-fryer oil, with hamburger grease smoking on a griddle, with fried-onion vapors nearly as thick as blackdamp.
If he hadn't been in a town unfamiliar to him, if he hadn't been tired after a day on the road, and if his younger brother, Shepherd, hadn't been in a puzzling mood, Dylan would have sought a restaurant with healthier fare. Shep wasn't currently able to cope in public, however, and when in this condition, he refused to eat anything but comfort food with a high fat content.
The restaurant was brighter inside than out. Most surfaces were white, and in spite of the well-greased air, the establishment looked antiseptic.
Contemporary culture fit Dylan O'Conner only about as well as a three-fingered glove, and here was one more place where the tailoring pinched: He believed that a burger joint ought to look like a joint, not like a surgery, not like a nursery with pictures of clowns and funny animals on the walls, not like a bamboo pavilion on a tropical island, not like a glossy plastic replica of a 1950s diner that never actually existed. If you were going to eat charred cow smothered in cheese, with a side order of potato strips made as crisp as ancient papyrus by immersion in boiling oil, and if you were going to wash it all down with either satisfying quantities of icy beer or a milkshake containing the caloric equivalent of an entire roasted pig, then this fabulous consumption ought to occur in an ambience that virtually screamed guilty pleasure, if not sin. The lighting should be low and warm. Surfaces should be dark--preferably old mahogany, tarnished brass, wine-colored upholstery. Music should be provided to soothe the carnivore: not the music that made your gorge rise in an elevator because it was played by musicians steeped in Prozac, but tunes that were as sensuous as the food--perhaps early rock and roll or big-band swing, or good country music about temptation and remorse and beloved dogs.
Nevertheless, he crossed the ceramic-tile floor to a stainless-steel counter, where he placed his takeout order with a plump woman whose white hair, well-scrubbed look, and candy-striped uniform made her a dead ringer for Mrs. Santa Claus. He half expected to see an elf peek out of...